How I Broke Into the Staging Industry
A question from a recent blog reader:
“Hi Cindy, I love your work and your website. They are gorgeous! I am very interested in learning about what you do and the staging industry, as well as breaking into the industry. Can you tell me more?”
I always think it’s a bit of a luck and destiny that I have my own business. In 2005, a year after my contract wrapped with AmeriCorps, I was unemployed and unable to find a job no matter how hard I tried. I was a professional intern for about a year. I interned for several art galleries in San Francisco and SFMOMA, determining to become a part of non-profit & art development world.
Interning was cool but it was a bit of soul-sucking as well. I didn’t feel any particular strong sense of accomplishment nor I felt very fulfilled in general. My job searches kept coming up zero and it was pretty depressing. I feel ashamed and a failure. My parents didn’t say anything but I could feel their worry.
I grew up in a family where both of my parents had their own businesses, and both of their parents had their own businesses as well. I grew up in my parents’ businesses. I see them interact with their clients daily and I catch glimpses of how I want to be when I grow up. I always joke that I’ve been an entrepreneur since I’ve had baby teeth. Apparently (I have no memories of this whatsoever) I used to change my sister’s diapers and negotiated for allowances. To this day, my mom still rolls her eyes when she tells that story.
Sensing how antsy I was, my mom said “Why don’t you become a real estate agent? That seems like something you can do.” “Well, I do like houses.” So that was how I become a real estate agent.
When you become a real estate agent, you first cut your teeth working with buyers and do open houses for other agents in your office. I also visited a lot of open houses to get an idea of the current market. It’s a lot of prospecting, face-to-face and lots of networking. My mom loves looking at houses, so naturally she tagged along on a few. I remember at one open house, I was amazed how immaculate one house was. I remember commenting this to my mom, and my mom said “Oh, that’s all staged.” “Wait, staged? What do you mean?” “Yeah, there are people who do this for a living. They stage houses.” I remember thinking, people do this for a living? That sounds amazing and magical all at the same time.
Fast forward a few months, I went to NAR (National Association of Realtors)‘s national convention in downtown San Francisco. There, I met Barb Schwarz and went to her seminar about staging. It made a lot of sense to me. I wanted to bring more values to my clients and hopefully get a few listings. Knowing about staging seemed to be a perfect value-add for sellers.
That seminar pretty much changed my career trajectory. Shortly after that, I signed up for Barb’s ASP course, Staged4more was born a week after that. I got the name for the business while sitting in classroom listening to the trainer. I started staging part time while working with buyers, and then it became full time. After that, I also took ASP Master, CSP, Dewey Color Consultation, Interior Redesign Industry Specialist (now defunct), Live Green Live Smart and Sustainable Building Advisor courses.
So in a nutshell, that’s how I broke into the industry. Now that I’ve been in business for almost 10 years, Staged4more has evolved. I’ve started taking projects that flexes my creative muscles and opportunities to collaborate with others.
In additions to home staging, I had done visual merchandise for trade shows, freelanced on commercial photo shoots assisting wardrobe or prop stylists, designing decor for private events, revamped and installed the holiday decor at Union Square Ice Rink for the past 2 years, small styling projects, and I’ve even styled a wedding that got published. I’ve also freelanced for companies like Ralph Lauren, Anthropologie and Saks Fifth Avenue building window and store displays. This summer, we are also rolling out our Summer School with live and online courses for home owners, sellers, agents and fellow creative entrepreneurs.
So yeah, that’s the fun of entrepreneurship, you get to create the business you want and to live with. It’s not to say there are no challenges. I have shared a lot of those several times on this blog.
If you are looking into breaking into the staging industry, here are my recommendations:
SHADOW / INTERN FOR SOMEONE WHO IS ESTABLISHED
You will learn a lot interning / shadowing someone who is already established in the business. You get to observe the way they work (often have it down to a science) and learn from their mistakes. You will also be able to see how this world works and gauge if it’s for you. What you see on HGTV is very different from how stagers live their lives.
KNOW YOUR WHY
Why do you want to get into the business? This is the #1 question I often ask. I made a conscious decision that I don’t want to take on interior design projects because they are very time-consuming and my personality works with short-term projects or projects where I can have control over time management & planning, like weddings or prop styling, best.
So why do you want to get into staging?
Recommended Reading: Start with Why by Simon Sinek
Yes, ask stagers out for coffee. But know that stagers are busy and they may not be able to accommodate your request. Before you approach them, also do some homework. Avoid asking questions that you can simply find out by Googling or get from their website. It turns people off (especially very busy ones) and may not want to connect with you. Be willing to accommodate their schedule and show that you really want to learn from them (but not in a I-want-to-single-white-female-you-and-then-steal-all-your-clients-way).
The same goes with potential clients. Visit agents at open houses, chat with them. Put in face time. They may not be the top producers yet, but if they are great partners now, you can rise to the top together.
DO A TEST PROJECT
This is one of the best ways to build a great portfolio and showcase your style when you are first starting out. Seasoned stylists and photographers I know still do this even when they are established! So yeah, you may not be booking project yet, but you can makeover your own house, right? Regardless if you rent or own. Do that! Makeover a living room, take before and after photos, and use that on your website.
Don’t ever, and I mean ever, copy and paste someone else’s portfolio photos and use them as your own. Especially if you ever assisted a stager. Even if you worked on their projects that doesn’t mean you have the rights to use their photos and claim that you are the stylist on the job. This has happened to me before and our lawyer eventually had to get involved. It was unpleasant for all parties involved (except for the lawyers).
Copyright infringement is a serious business and you can pay hefty prices for it. If you truly are talented, you don’t need someone else’s work.
Another common mistakes I have seen new stagers make over and over is when they slash their prices so they can get a job. You eventually will price yourself out of the business. If you can get a client by comprising your values, that means your clients will leave when they find a cheaper stager. I see this happen time after time again. Don’t sell yourself short.